The Roald Dahl rewrite kerfuffle

In case you’ve been living under a rock, there have been a lot of news stories written about Roald Dahl in recent weeks, specifically about the decision by his publishers to rewrite some of the text in line with modern sensibilities. A lot of people somehow seemed to think Netflix was to blame. After a massive outcry that included commentary from notable authors, self-aggrandizing blowhards, and pretty much everybody on Reddit, Puffin has now caved and will be publishing the “classic” books alongside the updated versions.

I found out about the changes on February 14th when I was contacted by someone at the Telegraph who said they were writing a feature about Dahl and wanted to chat to a Dahl fan about “his strange/spiky appeal.” There seemed to be some sort of a time crunch (in hindsight they were obviously aiming to get the scoop) so I was on a call with them in less than an hour. After asking me some general questions about Dahl’s appeal, the interviewer told me that his books were being edited to be more politically-correct and asked me to comment on that. I realised at once that this was a minefield. If I criticised the changes (which I hadn’t even seen; they didn’t give me any examples), it would be like I was defending Dahl’s archaic prejudices and attitudes. If I supported the changes, I’d be opening myself up to attacks from the right-wing troll brigade… and I know too many women who have found their physical safety compromised by angering these folks online.

So I tried to thread the needle. I explained to the interviewer that Dahl himself had edited his books during his lifetime to remove problematic imagery, like changing the Oompa-Loompas to be fantasy characters rather than black pygmies from Africa. The interviewer was surprised by this and said that he hadn’t known about it. I also pointed out that towards the end of his life, Dahl’s editors worked with him extensively to shape the stories and tone down certain aspects, like altering some of the descriptions of the flesh-eating giants in The BFG and tweaking Fantastic Mr. Fox to make it less of a glorification of stealing. (These changes are documented in several of the Dahl biographies.) Even so, the published books still have some insensitive language, but so do lots of other famous works of literature (like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings). I said that I would be disappointed to see the books changing, but that I trusted Felicity to have his best interests at heart.

When the resulting article was published, I was honestly relieved that it didn’t quote me very much. The whole thing blew up in a culture war as I guessed it would, and several other journalists messaged me wanting to get my feelings about it. I turned them all down, mostly because I was travelling for work anyway but also because I still wasn’t sure how I felt about the changes.

Looking over the list now, I find some of the changes completely unobjectionable. Changing “mothers and fathers” to “parents”? Sure! I can see where that would make the book more inclusive. “Cloud-Men” to “Cloud-People”? I’m on board with that. But of course, the majority of edits go further than that. Pretty much every reference to fatness, ugliness, or gender roles has been either altered or excised. Mentions of specific countries have been removed. Some of the insults have been deleted. Whole stanzas of poems have been rewritten. And this, I agree, goes way too far. I do not support the changes… but probably not for the reasons you might guess.

Dahl was not a saint. He was a product of another time, and his books are a reflection of that. His attitudes towards women, people he considered unattractive, and certain races were wrong and indefensible. And if his writing is altered, it’s letting him off the hook. Ever since he died in 1990, it feels like there has been a concerted effort to sand down his more troublesome edges and turn him into just a twinkly grandfather. Anyone who’s read a biography of him or any of his adult stories knows that he was a lot more complicated than that. He had a lot of issues, and sometimes they seep into the stories. It’s important that we acknowledge those and call them out. Anything else is bowdlerizing.

That said – I don’t have kids. I’m also a white, cis-gendered person with lot of privilege, and when I was a child reading these books, certain language sailed right past me. Greek people being greasy in The BFG? I’m not Greek, so it was just a funny pun to me. The whole Wings/Wong bit in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator? Also just silliness. All the little jibes about how monstrous bald women are in The Witches? I could see that for myself in the illustrations. Nowadays I cringe to think of a parent reading those books to their child and having to decide whether to skip over or deal with those passages.

Ultimately I’m glad the original books will still be published, but honestly, my feelings about Dahl are so different than they were when I started this website back in 1996. I’m grateful that his family have apologised for some of his truly appalling statements, but I don’t think the solution is to turn his stories into something they weren’t. I like his books in spite of the problematic aspects – because they turned me into a voracious reader; because I found them wickedly funny and imaginative; because there are certain passages and images that imprinted themselves on my soul – but I certainly wouldn’t recommend them to everyone. If his books don’t appeal to a modern audience, then that’s fine – no author is entitled to an audience forever.

Missing instructions for your Lagoon Game?

I get so many comments from people who have purchased one of Lagoon Games’s Dahl board/card games that haven’t come with instructions. Unfortunately I don’t own any of the games myself so I’m unable to help. However, the manufacturer has a website where you can download the instruction sheets for a few of the games. If the game you want isn’t listed there, you should get in touch with them directly at

Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse

If you’re in the UK, there’s a new movie airing on Sky One on Christmas Eve called Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse.

This movie is based on the “true story” of when six-year-old Roald Dahl met his favourite author, the 80-year-old Beatrix Potter. Two of the most famous children’s books authors meeting up?! Seems to good to be true, doesn’t it? As a longtime Dahl fan, my initial reaction to this news was, “Huh??” I immediately ran to check both the Treglown and Sturrock biographies, and neither of them mention this at all. You’d think this momentous intersection between Dahl and Potter would merit a mention, right? 🤔

The only actual source I’ve found so far is this story from Wales Online, which says, “Dahl confided in friend Brough Girling about the meeting before his death in 1990, and Mr Girling has spoken about it for the first time” in 2008. Girling claims that Felicity Dahl confirmed the story, and presumably that’s true given the fact that they’ve turned it into a film.

Still, it’s all rather tenuous, isn’t it? Dahl was a very old man when he related this story to Girling, and Girling only came forward with it 18+ years later. And I know there are examples of Dahl misremembering events from his own childhood. In Boy – Tales of Childhood, for example, he talks about how seeing Geoffrey Fisher, then Archbishop of Canterbury, crown Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey made him doubt the existence of God, since Fisher had administered vicious flogging and abuse to boys at Roald’s school Repton. However, Jeremy Treglown realised the dates didn’t line up and Dahl had confused Fisher with his successor as headmaster. Could he have misremembered meeting Potter?

Look, I have no idea whether Roald Dahl ever did meet Beatrix Potter. I just find it odd that two biographers, both of whom did massive amounts of research on his life (and Sturrock was a family friend, I believe), neglected to mention this meeting in their books. 🤷‍♀️

Dahl family apology for anti-Semitic comments

Many folks alerted me to the recent apology posted on the official Roald Dahl website and seemed surprised to learn about this aspect of the author. It’s never really been a secret, and I suspect it’s probably the reason he was never offered the knighthood he wanted. (Similarly, The Guardian reported the Royal Mint cancelled plans to honour the 100th year since his birth with a commemorative coin because of his anti-Semitic remarks.) Since I started this fan site back in 1996, I’ve received a number of emails from students and teachers upset when they learned of some of Dahl’s problematic opinions. I even had an item on my FAQ page about it. While I appreciate that the family made a statement, it’s very brief and rather vague. I’m also unclear what prompted them to finally apologise so many years after his death.

If you are interested in reading more about the unvarnished Dahl – both the good and the bad – you should check out Jeremy Treglown’s Roald Dahl: A Biography (or read these reviews of the book which mention a bit of it).

Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” Online

Great news, Dahl fans! The UK’s Unicorn Theatre, together with The Guardian, have released a brand new theatrical reading of one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved books about a most despicable couple, The Twits, the clever Muggle-Wump and the magnificent Roly-Poly Bird. This unabridged reading, filmed in the Unicorn theatre, is gleeful, gunge-filled digital storytelling aimed at children aged 6 – 12.

And you can watch the whole thing online until November 30th!

“Gremlins… A Warning!”

I’ve recently tracked down yet another version of Dahl’s Gremlins, this time a short story called “Gremlins… A Warning!” from the April 11, 1943 issue of This Week Magazine. Based on the timing, I’m fairly certain this was published as part of a concerted marketing push to keep the public interested in the Gremlins characters while Disney continued to struggle with the planned film production. It’s interesting to see that this version is credited to Dahl directly (as opposed to Cosmopolitan’s story five months earlier, which used the pseudonym “Pegasus”).

“Gremlins... A Warning” from April 1943 “This Week Magazine”

Roald Dahl… movie reviewer?!

Today I learned that Roald Dahl wrote, on at least one occasion, a published movie review! His review of the 1964 British neo noir drama film Séance on a Wet Afternoon was called “The Painful Pleasure of Suspense” and was published in the December 1964 issue of LIFE Magazine. You can go here to read the complete text.

I have to say, I winced a few times while reading that review. Not because of his opinion of the film (which he loved), but because some of the comments seem particular pointed for someone married to a movie star actress. For example, “fine actors of only moderate fame will make far better films than glamorous world-famous stars of only moderate ability.”

I mean, OUCH. Poor Patricia Neal!